InvestSMART

Divisive outlaw's legacy should be settled

Ned Kelly is a legend. To say as much is not to endorse all that he did it is to say that his story has a continuing power in this culture.

Ned Kelly is a legend. To say as much is not to endorse all that he did it is to say that his story has a continuing power in this culture.

Ned Kelly is a legend. To say as much is not to endorse all that he did it is to say that his story has a continuing power in this culture.

This week, after the state government announced it is releasing Ned's remains to his descendants, Police Association secretary Greg Davies likened Ned to Carl Williams, calling him a multiple murderer. ''There is no worse liar than a revisionist historian,'' declared Davies. ''He wasn't a Robin Hood - he didn't steal from the rich and give to the poor he stole from everyone and kept the proceeds for himself.''

Ian Jones's 1995 biography of Ned is commonly considered the most authoritative. In it, Jones explains how the proceeds of the Kelly gang's bank raids were distributed among those called ''the sympathisers''. But it is, I agree, wrong to compare Ned to Robin Hood. That is an English myth. Ned's myth is Irish in its origins, Australian in its expression, and all his own.

Ned's father, an Irish Catholic, was tall, good-looking, athletic and a failure of a man, having been broken on the wheel of the convict system. Ned's fiery mother was a Quinn. The Quinns were free settlers from Ulster where they had been well schooled in sectarian politics.

Ned became the man of the house at the age of 12 with the death of his father. The incident that led to him being outlawed occurred in 1878. A police trooper later dismissed from the force had approached the Kelly hut in a semi-inebriated condition. The Kellys claimed he made an improper pass at 14-year-old Kate Kelly. Ned was charged with shooting at him. Ellen Kelly, with a two-week-old baby, was charged as an accessory. Sir Redmond Barry, a Protestant Irishman who would later sentence Ned to death, sentenced Ellen to three years' hard labour.

Despite being charged with a capital offence, Ned and Dan offered to hand themselves in if their mother was released. The offer was refused. What followed included the shooting of three policemen at Stringybark Creek and a foiled plan to derail a trainload of police at Glenrowan in 1880. This was the gang's climactic drama, and bands of armed ''sympathisers'' were waiting at the edges. Briefly, the Kelly outbreak hovered on the edge of a much larger uprising.

People wishing to comment on the relationship between the Kellys and the police would do well to consult the 1881 royal commission on the matter. Most of the police involved in the case were either demoted or recommended for retirement. This is but one of many differences between Ned's case and Carl Williams's.

Leigh Olver, an art teacher in the western suburbs, is the descendant of Ned's whose DNA was used to identify Ned's remains. Two months ago in this newspaper, Jo Chandler wrote that Olver ''struggles with the polarising villain/hero representation of Kelly ? He felt it profoundly when he went to Stringybark Creek to unveil a plaque for the police killed there. ''I really just wanted to say, 'Let's just let it rest, let it go in the past'.''

I was there that day in 2001. There was a sincere rapprochement between the descendants of the Kelly family and the descendants of the slain policemen, several of whom were serving police officers. The matter of Ned's remains and whether there should be a memorial to him would be better resolved by a further meeting of the families and other involved parties than by shouting through the media.

Martin Flanagan is a senior writer.


Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles